Both warning and advertisement, the Terminator films are technophobic teases, selling tickets by promising this decade's model of killing machine: the classic V8 1984 Schwarzenegger; the bullet-streamlined, liquid-metal '91 Robert Patrick of T2: Judgment Day; Kristanna Loken's 2003 T-X (with burgundy pleather upholstery).
Terminator Salvation, a departure in many ways, is the first Terminator with no upgrade. The hardware is clanky, and runs on diesel. Schwarzenegger is present only as a CGI mask. The franchise's creation myth — the toppling of humanity by Skynet computers — has finally come to pass. It's 2018 — time enough, apparently, for survivors to start dressing like drum circle squatters. Christian Bale's John Connor is a maverick officer in the human Resistance. Sam Worthington's Marcus Wright, last he remembers, donated his body to Cyberdyne before a lethal injection. He wakes to a blasted world, carrying a plot twist familiar to viewers who know their Philip K. Dick.
To hear director McG tell it, this is nothing less than Terminator Salvage, a mission to "re-establish credibility" (aka consumer confidence). The obvious models are Chris Nolan's po-faced Batmans. McG, who started off directing videos for frosted-tip bro bands, is stripping down, getting "dark." He's stricken color from the screen and book-clubbed his cast with copies of The Road. The visuals cite a checklist of 20th-century catastrophes: Worthington, in a Soviet-issue greatcoat, walks a Dresdened L.A.; oilfield fires à la Kuwait darken the horizon; human tissue is harvested in Holocaustic cattle-car roundups. There's even one of those simple nudges at contemporary commentary — "We are not machines, and if we behave like them, then what's the point in winning?" — that industrial-filmmaking liberals honestly believe alchemize entertainment into Art, like lead into gold.
Change was inevitable — the established Terminator formula has been squeezed dry in FOX's prime-time The Sarah Connor Chronicles. But among the many things junked in McG's chop shop is the notion of pleasure: The director describes cutting that "gratuitous moment of a girl taking her top off in an action picture" (God forbid) to get a franchise-first PG-13. He does, however, begin his film with the hook of Worthington clammily kissing a vampire-complexioned, bald-pated Helena Bonham Carter. T3 director Jonathan Mostow, trained on submarine and trucking thrillers, knew he was covering a greasy headbanger classic, not writing scripture. I went to his movie effed up and had a hoot; anyone planning the same for T4 will drop before the credits.
Salvation rolls along with Marcus on the road, his journey toward Resistance radio transmissions honoring the series' paranoid momentum (The Terminator actually had more in common with the implacable, unstoppable slasher pic than sci-fi mythos). The action set pieces, cut with overdone hectic percussion (as on a Neil Peart–sized kit), are engaging enough. It's when Marcus and Connor intersect — trekking to strike at Skynet's Silicon Valley nerve center, which looks to be somewhere between Mordor and the Port of Houston — that the movie slackens, with McG tugging at emotional connections he never stuck in place. There's a bit with Worthington smashing a monitor that I realized — with embarrassment, as it went into slow-motion — was actually supposed to be cathartic.
The Terminators have always respected female durability, from commando-mom Linda Hamilton to T3's intimation of masculine obsolescence, with effeminized Arnold modeling a pair of Elton John sunglasses. Salvation is comparatively antigirl. Moon Bloodgood's pilot is introduced shaking a luxuriant mane loose from her flight helmet, making a Jennifer Beals–in-Flashdance shocka out of something the preceding movies took for granted. She'll later face an arbitrarily staged menace; her would-be rapists are the only yee-hawing rednecks in the movie, though any American Resistance would, realistically, be half Scotch-Irish gun nuts. Bryce Dallas Howard, as Connor's wife, is here just to set up the all-time most convoluted "I'll be back."
But the essential problem here isn't the ladies — or the lack thereof. It's the no-frissons Bale-Worthington pairing. Bale, doing the "grrr" voice, is a lesson in how clenched effort does not equal effect. What's remarkable about his leaked freakout — mostly embarrassing in revealing a director who can't alpha up on his set — is that it's over a performance in McG's Terminator Salvation. Did the dude sweat this much over Reign of Fire? Worthington, half-burying his Aussie accent under gruff bluff, is of the blunt Jason Statham–Daniel Craig genus, with a bit of Ricky Hatton thrown in (with Hatton's level of resourcefulness). These Commonwealthers are dull trudgers, all — can we get a tariff?
Judgment Day alloyed pathos and explosions by matching Arnold's impassivity with Eddie Furlong's silent film–dolorous reaction shots — for those of a certain age, it's impossible to remember the sentimental gambit of that final thumbs-up without getting misty. Salvation, terminally gray, all macho bark, doesn't do contrasts. This means monotony — as predictable as, when the movie tanks, McG telling an interviewer it was "too dark" for the multiplex.